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Many moms worry that their mother-son relationship will be damaged when their adult sons marry and start families of their own. Here are some tips on building a bond that lasts.

The email landed in my inbox from a total stranger, and it arrived with an almost audible thud so heavy were the emotions it carried. It came from the heart of an expectant mother who had just received the news that the baby she was carrying was a boy. She had been hoping for a girl, because she had read discouraging accounts of mother-son relationships and was spiraling into disappointment.

Her feelings of dread were rooted in her family of origin. Her two brothers—now adults—were not at all close to their mom, and looking around, she believed her bias was confirmed with evidence from other families in which the daughters were close to their moms—while the sons were not.

She presented her fears to me in this way:

“Will my son still want to have a relationship with me when he is a man? Will I be replaced by a wife and her family? Is it really true that ‘a son is a son till he takes a wife, but a daughter’s a daughter for the rest of her life?’”

She had stumbled across some of my work online, had read about my life with four growing-up sons, and she wrote to me looking for reassurance. Was I close to my teen and adult sons? Would I share a little about my experience of building a relationship with them? Did I have thoughts on how much of the relationship I have with them is due to their personality versus our home environment?

Her questions and concerns led to an email correspondence that uncovered the depth of her fears and pushed me to put into words some of the foundations and principles that had been guiding my parenting life with much-loved sons. 

Since the correspondence happened as a Q&A, I’ll open my email inbox and invite you to sit right here around the glowing screen with whatever fears you bring to the table about ‘losing’ your son one day when he grows up. Together, let’s examine the finer points of maintaining a warm closeness in that sweet mother-son relationship.

 

HOW DO YOU STAY CLOSE TO YOUR SONS AS THEY GROW UP?

I realized when my boys were very small that maintaining a relationship with them as they grew older was going to be a challenge, because I’m a ‘do-er’. When they needed help in the tub or someone to make them a sandwich, I knew exactly what to do, and I was all over it.

However, that physically dependent stage when I was clipping 40 fingernails and 40 toenails besides my own was (mercifully) short, and it’s not long before our sons no longer need our help or care. We have an opportunity, then, during those years of physical closeness, to build cords of love by talking and listening, making space for their stories and their feelings—big and small.

This did not come easily for me, but I forced myself to lift my eyes from my work (most of the time) when they were talking to me. I tried (and still try) to anticipate ways that I can be helpful, but I especially want my demeanor and my schedule to communicate my openness to their needs and my willingness to put my own life on hold to be available to them.

 

HOW DO YOU STAY CLOSE TO YOUR MARRIED SONS?

Marriage has actually enhanced my relationship with our eldest. Geography poses a challenge with our second, but technology is a great gift that keeps us close. Our third married son has only recently tied the knot, so the jury’s still out, but he and I have multiple points of intersection, so I’m not concerned. 

I recommend that moms disregard the popular wedding wisdom for mothers of the groom. Your role is NOT mainly to “show up and shut up.” Long before the wedding, you are laying groundwork for your son (and your new daughter-in-law) to make room within their new life for your voice and your presence.

From the start, I have expressed my love for the brave soul who is marrying into our family and have communicated my intent to support and encourage them both as a couple in any way I can. Learning to offer help with no strings attached has been a crash course in humility, and the lesson has been reinforced in recent years as our grown children actually have offered to us their gifts of wisdom or practical help.

 

HOW OFTEN DO YOU VISIT OR PHONE YOUR MARRIED SONS?

I don’t phone them as often as I should. I get pretty caught up in life here at home. My husband is more likely to pick up the phone or initiate a video chat, and I am learning to put on the brakes and to join him when that happens.

Often, when the phone rings and it’s one of the guys, he’s likely to ask for his father, but I have no desire to talk lawn mowers and chainsaws, so that’s fine. On the plus side of the ledger, I do get occasional phone calls about parenting or laundry issues—and sometimes just to chat.

Here is some specific wisdom to bear in mind about visits and calls:

 

1. An Invitation Is Not a Summons

Missing a family gathering is not a shunnable offense, and it’s important to have that conversation with your kids early in their marriages. Life is full, so we are all free to say no to invitations.

Additionally, their holidays will now include the need to gather with both sides of their family, and I never want to be guilty of making my kids feel as though their in-laws are my personal competition for their time and attention.

 

2. Don’t Keep Score

If your son hasn’t called in a long time, and you want to hear his voice, then (for heaven’s sake!) call him! Don’t fall into the trap of tracking who last called and whose ‘turn’ it is to make the move. For years and from a close vantage point, I watched a parent and child dynamic unfold in which each one was waiting for the other to call—the end result was two silent phones and a fractured, bitter relationship.

 

3. When You Are Offering To Be Helpful, Make Sure Everyone Is Operating From the Same Definition of ‘Help’ 

I decided from the outset that I would prefer to run the risk of being accused of being too distant rather than being accused of meddling. It became important to consider my offers of help from a different perspective before jumping in.

Would a bag of green beans from my garden be a welcome gift or a lot of work that no one wants right now?

Is a Christmas season overnight with the grandparents a fun time for the kids and a break for Mom and Dad? Or is it a crazy-making schedule buster?

Is the unsolicited advice on the tip of my tongue really necessary?

 

IS MY LONG-TERM RELATIONSHIP WITH MY SON BEYOND MY CONTROL OR CAN SOME GROUNDWORK REALLY MAKE A DIFFERENCE?

Yes. It is beyond your control AND groundwork really will make a difference.

Holding on and letting go are opposites, for sure, but in the mothering life, they are two sides of one huge coin.

Once, in the heat of an argument, one of my sons flung these words at me: “How dare you have a plan for MY life?” My response, flung back with tears was, “I challenge you to invest as much in anything as I have invested in your life and NOT have a plan in mind!”

But he was right. My plan was getting in the way of seeing his life as he had begun to envision it. I had some catching up to do in the letting-go department, but I have never been sorry for all the ways I hung on tightly to the hearts of my four sons.

 

FINAL THOUGHTS

Most important of all, friends, I don’t want you to think there’s a magic formula for being a ‘successful’ boy mom or a series of steps that will automatically result in a strong mother-son relationship long term. As you become a student of your son’s needs and nature, you are in the best position of all to assess the boundaries and the points of connection that are going to define your life with him.

Above all, know this: My solid relationship with my sons is more a product of grace than a result of any particular thing I’ve done. Trust God to instill in your heart a genuine and unselfish love for your boy and then hold on to the good gift of his ever expanding world, the good of him doing things in his own way, and the good that you, too, will be changing, learning, and growing alongside him as you cheer him on into adulthood.

 

Boy moms: How do you foster a positive relationship with your adult sons? What advice would you give to a younger mom seeking to develop a lasting bond with her son(s)?

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24 comments
  1. Oh! This wisdom came on the heels of my son’s wedding! So good and so true! There is a fine art to loving a grown son and I am still learning, but it all began when the Holy Spirit gently showed me how to let go of my own ideas of who he should be. Who he has become is so much greater than I could have ever dreamed! I look forward to watching his life continue to unfold with his new bride.

    1. I love how this article intersects your life at this tender time. I am also learning the dance steps to loving a new daughter in law, and the letting go of another sweet son. God is so faithful as he grows us up in our dependence on him.

  2. With a grown son of my own, I find so many truths in this. Letting go is one of the most bittersweet parts of parenting. Thank you for sharing your wisdom and perspective!

    1. This all arrived as a total surprise to me, Lori. Our kids grow up before our eyes, and we imagine that the letting go will be as seamless as the arrival was, but every single time, it’s been a process in which I’ve had to speak truth to myself in order to respond rationally and with grace. It’s such a gift to meet with others in the same season here, today!

  3. This is so lovely! My son is now 20 and I feel like my job has shifted to becoming his prayer warrior. Sometimes I share encouragement by text with him, other times a joke, but always covering him in prayer in his decisions for career, social, girlfriends, and life. My constant prayer is that he would chase hard after Christ all the days of his life. Thank you for sharing your beautiful words! So lifegiving!

    1. I wish I could remember where I read it, but your words remind me of a quote that gave me considerable food for thought. The writer was assuring another mum that “the time for your parenting in the flesh has come to an end, but now, you will parent in the spirit.” And quite honestly, I would also say that, as mums of adult sons, we parent via the Capital S Spirit as well, because we rely on him to hold sway in our hearts.
      So good to hear from you, Cara.

  4. I do feel i know my daughter more, because she and I are so alike and she is a girl, but I also know my son and I have a strong and special connection. I think part of the trick is to let them go and make their own life and their own decisions as they grow. Being there to support, encourage and love them along the way as they pursue their dreams, which often are different from our own dreams for them. Smothering them and nagging them makes them run long and fast, or maybe give up in defeat. Boy relationships can be special. As moms we can love them, emotionally engage with them, and encourage them in ways their dads often cannot. I love your part about, “in recent years as our grown children actually have offered to us their gifts of wisdom or practical help.” I have seen this with my children and it is such a full circle of life.

    1. I feel as if I understand some of our sons more easily than others. And, of course, there are also aspects of all four that I just don’t get, and may never understand. I agree with you about being careful not to inflict our own desires upon our kids. They have the potential to do and to be SO MUCH MORE than we envision.

  5. I screenshotted the final paragraph, brought tears to my eyes. I’m in a laying the groundwork phase with my sons, 1 toddler and 1 teen. Two very different levels of parenting. Learning to pray a heck of alot more and thank you for saying that I needed to love unselfishly. My teen is starting to grow up. He’s a young man and it feels like it happened out of nowhere. I wasn’t ready.. emotionally, thank you

    1. I think that oldest son does a lot of training for us mums who want to hang on.
      Love is such a sneaky thing, and we imagine that it somehow purifies our motives, but we have to be so careful to hang on tight where we are needed and to let go where we are not. I think it’s a balancing act only God can choreograph for us, and even though my nest is empty, I’m still learning the steps with my adult sons.

  6. My son, our first born, is going to be 40 in a couple of weeks. He lives on the other side of the country in Alberta, Canada while we live in Ontario. The best bonding that I have with him is this time of year in the season of Major League Baseball playoffs. We continually text each other during the games as we cheer for each of our favorite teams. This week will be especially nice as the World Series is starting! I can hardly wait for tonight’s first game to begin. It is a seasonal way for me to remember all of those Little League games he played in so long ago.

    1. Oh, how I love this story! Enjoy every minute of this season!
      For me, I think the connection has been music, theater, and now I’m pretty sure our big connection is our mutual love for our sweet grandbabies! God is so good to give us areas of commonality to celebrate together.

  7. So many truths here, Michele! Though, I want to add that a daughter-in-law who reaches out for relationship, who strives to connect with her sibling-in-laws, and embrace her husband’s family makes a huge difference in a thriving, growing, long-term relationship that is so very worth while.

    1. I agree, and am thankful for the Gift of d-i-ls who have made the effort to meet us halfway. In this business of blending in-laws and outlaws, we have to trust for grace every day!

  8. I can “Amen” this with my three grown sons, one of whom is married. It helps to keep the lines of communication open. If I am not sure what to do, I try to share that and let them know if they want or don’t want my help, it’s fine either way.

    1. Sounds like wisdom to me. I think it’s good for them to know that we don’t always know what “helping “ looks like—and that our heart and intentions are in the right place!

  9. I love that your advice is also applicable to those of us with daughters. The process of letting go is a learning curve regardless. I’m still in it myself. My oldest daughter has recently pulled away more than I’m comfortable with, so God is teaching me lessons anew about putting my trust in him, and not in my “control” of the situation since I have so little. Thanks, Michele!

    1. Wow, Lisa, I see how God is using even this aspect of your life to underscore your dance with Uncertainty in 2021. I go through the same thing myself when one (or more!) of our sons has been preoccupied with some absorbing situation and we don’t hear details of their life. Distance is SO hard to navigate, both geographically and relationally.
      I’m happy to hear that the post has relevance for girl-mums, too!

  10. Such wisdom here, Michele … for boy moms AND girl moms. I’ve tried to be a student of my girls over the years, but I’m finding the upper-level classes to be much harder in some ways than the earlier ones. I relate all too well to the conversation you had with your son about plans … it’s tough because there are things we know at 50 that the 20-year-olds just can’t understand. And yet, it is their life to live, not ours.

  11. As a mother of three adult children and a couple of adult grandchildren I find all your advice accurate. I do have a different relationship with my son than I do with my daughters but each of them is special in their own right. I think it starts when they are young. Actively listening when they share. Making time for them. Including them in your every day lives. Finding that thing you both have in common. My son and I text each other a song we just heard and know the other would love. We call to share a about a good movie or book or podcast. Occasionally, he stops by alone for a little quality time with me when his father is not here. Priceless. Different but priceless.

    1. You’ve made such a good point that it’s important for us to receive with joy the uniqueness of our relationships with our sons–rather than lamenting that they are not what we expected or different from relationships with daughters. I also like sending texts or recommending podcasts to my sons. We share a lot of common interests, and I have also noted that I need to be willing to be open to entering their world via movies that might not be my favorite but are certainly worth watching.
      Yes, Priceless, for sure!

  12. Ahhh, Michele, there is so, so much wisdom in your words. With two boy-men close to launching, I’m pondering each word. I’m praying for our sons. And Hubs and I are feeling our way forward as our relationships with them grow and change. It’s definitely been bumpy with our oldest so far. But I know that these bumps (hopefully) will smooth out . . . in time.

    1. Sadly, I think our oldest sons are saddled with the job of training us to let go. I’m so thankful you and your husband are together in this and have each other for support.

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